Freedom of the Press and Prime Minister Harper's Media Policy
By Graham Darling, University of Alberta LL.B. student
Freedom of the Press
The press as an institution is sometimes called the fourth estate, the other three being the legislative, judicial and administrative levels of government. The press is viewed this way because of its unofficial, yet important role in supervising the different levels of government and reporting to the public. To properly perform this role, freedom of expression, including freedom of the press is protected by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms(Charter). This protection means that the government cannot place restrictions on what the press can publish unless the restrictions can be justified under section 1 of the Charter.
Western democratic societies have long recognised that freedom of expression, and a free press are essential to their functioning. In the case of Edmonton Journal v. Alberta (Attorney General), the Supreme Court of Canada emphasized the importance of freedom of expression.
It is difficult to imagine a guaranteed right more important to a democratic society than freedom of expression. Indeed, a democracy cannot exist without that freedom to express new ideas and to put forward opinions about the functioning of public institutions. The concept of free and uninhibited speech permeates all truly democratic societies and institutions. The vital importance of the concept cannot be over-emphasized. Representative democracy, as we know it today, which is in great part the product of free expression and discussion of varying ideas, depends upon its maintenance and protection.
The Conservative Government’s Media Policy
Steven Harper became Prime Minister when the conservative party won the 2006 federal election. In an effort to maintain “message control”, Prime Minister Harper has made changes to how the government deals with the media. Harper’s media policy has not been well received by journalists or opposition Members of Parliament. Besides the changes in media relations, there is also the belief that Mr. Harper holds a long-standing dislike of the press. New Democrat MP Charlie Angus criticized Mr. Harper’s media relations strategy. He stated: "Harper ran on a campaign of open and accountable government…[a]nd the first thing we see him doing is putting plywood up over all his windows and barring access to the doors. My question is, why? What is Harper afraid of?''
The press in Ottawa believe that they are not being given sufficient access to the Prime Minister and his cabinet ministers. Journalists complain that their calls are not returned, that they are given copies of speeches only when they are days old, and that cabinet meetings are held in secret allowing ministers to avoid the press who wish to meet with them after the meetings and ask questions about their portfolios. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) sought to manage press conferences by compiling a list of journalists who wish to ask questions and then selecting from that list. Journalists walked out of a press conference to protest the new measures. Outside of Ottawa, the government banned the media from attending the repatriation of dead soldiers returning to Canadian military bases from Afghanistan.
Why restrict media access?
The Prime Minister’s chief of communication, Sandra Buckler, says that when the government has something to say, “Canadians are going to hear it.” According to the (PMO), running the government is an important and demanding job. Mr. Harper may not want to spend time answering questions from journalists when this time can be better spent doing his job. By maintaining tight control over what is discussed with the press, Mr. Harper is also able to manage communication between his government and the Canadian public, limiting the possibility that the media will run off in a direction that has little to do with the message that Mr. Harper wishes to send. From the government’s perspective, a press conference that has journalists asking questions unrelated to the conference topic is of little use to them.
The problem with restricting media access
Freedom of the press is granted constitutional protection, ensuring that journalists can report government activities to the Canadian public without interference. Mr. Harper has not placed any legal restrictions on what can be published, but he has limited what information is given to the press and has restricted the opportunities the press has to gather information. Without access to government officials and staff, the media is unable to ask important questions. And without access to military ceremonies or government events, the public is excluded from happenings that may be of great public interest.
To properly inform the public and hold the government accountable, journalists must know what the government is, or is not doing. Mr. Harper is criticized for his government’s lack of open communication with journalists, and for his interference with their constitutionally protected right to report to the public. Emmanualle Latraverse, the press gallery president, summarised the feelings of many journalists. She was quoted as saying "It's a privilege to govern and our duty as the press in a free society is to pick and choose the issues that we cover…[b]y restricting access to cabinet ministers, it amounts to restricting the issues that we can cover properly.''
Mr. Harper’s current uneasy relationship with the press highlights important section 2(b) Charter issues. Media cannot report what they do not know, and the government has no obligation to talk to journalists, or to assist them in gathering information. The Charter protects freedom of the press but does not place any positive obligations on the government to be transparent, open, and forthcoming with the Canadian public. When the Prime Minister’s office chooses not to communicate with journalists, and journalists are unable to access government officials or events, it becomes difficult for the press to provide accurate and timely reports on what the government is doing.
Freedom of expression is of great importance to a representative democracy. Political speech and freedom of the press are fundamental parts of what is protected under section 2(b) of the Charter. A government media policy that restricts the free flow of information and impairs efforts to question politicians and report on current political events is likely at odds with Charter values. Critics of this policy remind us that in order for Canadians to make informed political decisions and understand what their elected representatives are doing, it is essential that the press is able to gather and report political news. If the government is unwilling to provide this opportunity, who will?
Prime Minister Harper’s Media Policy in General
- “Harper's staff, media battle over access issues” CTV News (27 March 2006)
- Melanie Patten, “Harper Media Director Defends Ottawa’s New Relationship with Media” Canada.com (14 May 2006)
- “Harper to avoid national media, claiming bias” Office of External Relations, University of Alberta (15 May 2006)
- “Harper vs. Media war heats up” Canada.com (24 May 2006)
- Alexander Panetta, “Journalists boycott Harper news conference as media battle heats up”Canada.com (23 May 2006)
- “Harper says he's finished with Ottawa press corps” CBC News (24 May 2006)
- Glen McGregor, “Harper holds garden party for 'enemy' journalists”, Online: Canada.com (19 June 2006)
- Kevin Libin, “I’ve got more control now” The Western Standard (19 June 2006)
- David Jones, “What Harper has to put up with” Canada.com (2 June 2006)
- Bea Vongdouangchanh, “Reporters strike war-footing with PMO, but Harper won't be dictated by national media” The Hill Times (27 February 2006)
Media Ban On Returning Dead Soldiers